Indiana Humanities has launched a two-year major program called INseparable, designed to improve connections and understanding between people in the state’s big cities and those in its smaller cities and rural areas.
This coming week, my wife, Deb, and I will be in four different Indiana cities as part of their INconversation series (in conjunction with New America’s Indianapolis program), to discuss what we’ve learned in other parts of the country and to hear about what is happening in their communities.
Details of these events are on the Indiana Humanities Calendar site, here. In short, we will be in:
At the end of February, Deb Fallows and I were at an event in Pittsburgh at Alphabet City, a bookstore connected to the wonderful City of Asylum, which we wrote about several years ago. While there, we met John W. Miller, a former Wall Street Journal reporter turned filmmaker and local chronicler, who introduced us to a documentary film that takes a fresh and unusual look at a very familiar-seeming topic.
The movie is called Moundsville, produced by Miller and the Pittsburgh filmmaker David Bernabo, and it is about the travails of a West Virginia town that is coping with a usual-sounding range of Appalachian or declining-industrial-area woes:
Big, thriving factories had provided good, steady jobs—and then they closed, one by one, under pressure from automation or foreign competition. Downtown stores had held the town together—and then the big-box mall took the customers away. Young people who had the choice left town, and didn’t come back. The city’s population fell. Those who stayed got older, as the town’s hopes dwindled, and the remaining sources of work were the mall stores themselves, the fracking business, and a hoped-for tourist economy.
That sounds like a story you’ve heard many times. The Moundsville film, by Miller and Bernabo, presents the results in a way different from most other documentaries I’ve seen—but one strongly resonant with the experience Deb and I had in our “Our Towns” interviews across the country these past few years.
You can see the whole film (for $3.99) here, and a trailer is below. (A four-minute “Why Moundsvillle?” video with background on the project is here.)
The film is a little over an hour long, and it builds slowly from its economic-shock premise to an ending that is surprising on many levels. (The end involves the central role of a prison in the city’s economy and culture, but not in a way you would expect.)
What particularly struck Deb and me were three aspects of the film that were consistent with our experience in interviewing and traveling, but different from the standard declining-mill-town report:
a complete absence of any tone of self-pity or victimization among the people Miller and Bernabo interviewed;
a completely clear-eyed understanding, by those same people, of the inevitability of ceaseless economic and technological change—i.e., the absence of any thoughts on the line of, “We’ll be just fine, once the factories and the mines open back up again”;
and a sharp sense of humor and intelligence about their surroundings, the changing times, the aspects of local life that kept them tied to the community and the other aspects whose oddities they recognized. You’ll see what I mean on this last point if you watch to the end, about the current role of the former West Virginia State Penitentiary.
An article by Bill O’Driscoll about the film project on the website of WESA, a Pittsburgh’s NPR news station, has the significant headline, “Documentary Explores West Virginia Town—Without Mentioning Trump.” It quotes John Miller on a point that struck Deb and me again and again: The least interesting question you can ask in a place like Moundsville is the question that visiting journalists are most likely to start with, namely, views about Donald Trump. Or Hillary Clinton, or Robert Mueller, or Nancy Pelosi, or the upcoming elections, or “how terrible it is what’s happening on campuses these days,” or any other staple of a TV panel show. As the story said, with emphasis added:
Miller says that he and Bernabo did ask people in Moundsville what they thought of Trump. The trouble was, the answers were all stuff they’d heard before: “He’s trying to make America great again,” that sort of thing. “It just wasn’t interesting,” says Miller….
He adds, “If you watch the movie, you learn more in a way that helps you challenge a lot of what Trump says about bringing back jobs” – including Moundsville folks who acknowledge heavy-industry jobs aren’t returning.
Instead, Miller said, he and Bernabo asked people about the topics on which their views were interesting: the history of the town, the way its local patterns were connected to big international tech and trading shifts, what particular opportunities their location and history and culture afforded them. On these subjects, people’s views had complexity and depth and contradiction and humor, instead of the predictable range of pro- or anti-Trump views. In a post he wrote after Deb’s and my visit to City of Asylum, Miller said that he chose this approach
mostly because our questions about national politics yielded such predictable, cliché answers. The stories about people’s lives, jobs and families were the ones with depth and heart.
In a note he sent me recently, Miller said that he’d learned from this experience that
you get the most wisdom and insight out of engaging people at *their* best. And that's never going to happen if you're in a hurry and/or you ask about stuff they don't really know about (through no fault of their own.)
There is a lot more to the Moundsville saga than I will take the time to lay out here. Miller first became interested in the city back in 2013, when doing a Wall Street Journal feature about its weirdo (and now very successful) Museum of the Paranormal. Before moving to Pittsburgh in 2011, Miller had been based in Brussels and doing Journal reports on trade policy, often from the top-down, EU-and-WTO level. He was fascinated to find a place that had been shaped from earliest times by large-scale trading trends—the native tribes that built the city’s eponymous burial mound 2,200 years ago exchanged goods with other tribes located from the Gulf Coast to the Great Lakes—and that was again being shaped by modern globalization. And so the reporting and the film project began. (A recent article by Miller in America magazine is here.)
After I told Miller that one of Deb’s and my policies for learning about a town was never to go into a diner and start asking people, “So what do you think about _______ [name your polarizing topic]?” he said that he was perversely delighted that one of his film’s opening shots was of a middle-aged white guy in a diner. What he loved, Miller said, was that the interviewee, a retired teacher, “totally flipped the script with super-wise observations,” including a Pogo-style “We have met the enemy, and he is us,” maxim about the contradictions of modern capitalism. (People grumbled about the loss of cozy, locally-owned downtown retailers—and those same people flocked to the WalMart, when it opened, because the prices were lower. It’s an old story, but it has a different edge when told by a city resident and not an economics professor.)
The film is worth watching, and the updates from Miller and Bernabo on their site are valuable as well. Check them out.
This makes it all the more important to notice, to connect, and to learn from the dispersed examples of local-level renewal, progress, and reinvention around the country. That is the intended theme of this ongoing thread.
With minimal elaboration, here are a few recent installments and bits of evidence toward this end:
1. Progressive federalism: My friends Lenny Mendonca and Laura Tyson have written extensively on this phenomenon, and how exactly cities, states, and regions and work most effectively in a time of national dysfunction. (Lenny Mendonca is the former head of CalForward and recently announced chief economic adviser to new California Governor Gavin Newsom. Laura Tyson was head of Bill Clinton’s National Economic Council and is a professor at UC Berkeley.)
In an article “America’s New Democracy Movement,” they detail a theme discussed here over the months, and evident in the 2018 mid-term results: moves toward structural improvements in the machinery of governance, at the local and state level. The state-level moves in the opposite direction, notably in North Carolina and Wisconsin, are well known. Mendonca and Tyson say there is an opposing and more positive trend:
But the story of the 2018 midterms is about more than Trump and the future of his presidency. It is about an American electorate yearning for democratic reforms. Like in the Progressive era of the early twentieth century, when citizens and states spearheaded a wave of measures to improve democratic governance, voters from both parties used the election to signal their support for democracy….
With the federal government mired in dysfunction and now in its third shutdown since January 2018, voters are taking charge. Come 2020, there is every reason to expect that “progressive federalism” will usher in democratic reforms on a scale not seen since the heyday of the original Progressive movement.
2. Also in California, the governor-once-removed Arnold Schwarzenegger is continuing his drive for progressive democratic reform, notably through anti-gerrymandering measures. On January 10 his institute at USC had a big “Fair Maps Incubator” conference about a new approach to districting. I look forward to seeing the results.
3. Also in California, our friend Joe Mathews reports in the San Francisco Chronicle on the Salinas Valley town of Gonzales, many of whose residents are farm workers and where the median income is only $17,000 a year, that has found an ambitious way to give its young people a much better chance. As he writes:
Against the odds, Gonzales has assembled such a rich suite of services for children—27 programs—that it spends more on youth than on its Fire Department. Gonzales residents are poor, but they still voted for a half-cent sales tax that helps fund youth services. And while leaders in this Monterey County town don’t have much power, that didn’t stop them from sharing power with their own children, who help make decisions on spending and policy.
Gonzales, for all its challenges, has real strengths. It has developed an industrial park and agriculture-related businesses that produce steady tax revenue. And it has stable and thoughtful local leadership….
As much as possible, Gonzales employs the city’s own children as part-time workers or interns in its programs. Students as young as ninth-graders are asked to interview and fill out applications — giving them experience. The city also gives part-time work to college students from Gonzales to keep them connected to the town.
The whole story is worth reading.
4. Not in California, but from a state resident (and former San Jose Mercury reporter): Dan Gillmor writes about experiments in re-connecting local journalism with its civic audience, and with a potential economic base. This one is in Kansas City, to give local residents a view inside the news room.
Our work with newsrooms, including Kansas City, has been about collaboration in every respect. At The Star, for example, the collaboration with the public library has been astoundingly productive. The organizations teamed up on “Java with Journalists” meetings at branch libraries — a project soon to be expanded to other public library systems in the Kansas City metro area — and, of course, the “What’s Your KCQ” project. The latter has another partner: Hearken, a Chicago-based specialist in what it calls “public powered journalism” in which the public is integral to the reporting….
Speaking personally, some lessons are already clear. Among them: Each newsroom and community is different, so the engagement/transparency projects need to be tailored to fit the people and place; the principles don’t change but the specific tactics may.
Samantha Max, of the Telegraph in Macon, Georgia, has a related report, which like Gillmor’s is carried at Arizona State University’s NewsCo/Lab site.
5. From a very different perspective, drawing from the works of Friedrich Hayek and the doctrine of “subsidiarity” with a heavily Catholic emphasis, Andy Smarick of the libertarian R Street Institute talks about conservatives’ obligation to work out the practicalities of a local-centric approach. His essay in National Affairs is called “Toward a Real Decentralization,” and it says:
Conservative leaders who embrace [the localist] view should be comfortable even with formations that adopt initiatives they may not like. By recognizing our own limitations and the authority of others, we can see that the American unum requires a pluribus.
There are many instances in which leaders on the right seem to miss this point. For example, after the city of Charlotte passed an ordinance in 2016 permitting transgender people to use the bathrooms they prefer, state lawmakers in North Carolina hastily passed a bill overriding this policy….
Similarly, as political-science professor Jay Aiyer pointed out in a paper on localism in Texas, "Texas is a conservative state with growing liberal urban centers. However … the leadership in Texas has chosen to centralize authority through the legislative process, undermining local control on a myriad of issues." In other words, to prevent liberal policies from taking effect, or what Texas governor Greg Abbott often refers to as "the Californization of Texas," conservative leaders at times proudly subvert local authorities.
The essay is a useful complement to the progressive-minded examinations of the likes of Tyson and Mendonca.
Despite the chaos in and around the White House and the fog of stagnation it creates, emanating from a man who could care less for this country, and despite the cultural changes shrewdly observed by my friend, there must and will be a return to sanity and to a brighter day for the country we love. We are optimists because we are Americans.
As Reverend Jesse Jackson used to say about himself, God is not done with us yet.
Details on what God may have in mind for the people of the United States, and what Earthlings may do about it, ahead.
Back in the days before all data was stored everywhere, forever, never to disappear even if you try, writers and composers shared the experience of waking up at 3am, in cold-sweat terrors because of the “lost manuscript” nightmare.
This fear was based on hoary stories about some novelist or historian who got into a cab with a bag containing a 1,000-page manuscript representing years of work — and got out of the cab leaving the bag behind, impossible to retrieve. Or, in a variant, the only copy of the manuscript was sitting in the house, when the house burned down—or aboard a boat, when the boat sank.
Apparently real-life writers have actually suffered this misfortune. You can read an account covering authors from Milton to Hemingway to Edna St. Vincent Millay here, and others here and here.
I’ve personally seen a real-life version of this nightmare. As described here, the very first story I ever wrote for my college newspaper was about a fire that destroyed the university economics department. On the sidewalk outside, I encountered a man sobbing as he watched the blaze: the only extant copy of the book he’d been working on for years was inside, and was reduced to ashes. (As I confessed: “The moment had a career-changing effect on me. As the first question I asked, for the first story I wrote, I turned to this unfortunate and said: Well, Dr. Swami, how does it feel to see your life's work vanish? I was becoming a journalist.”)
And I’ve recently encountered a minor-league real-world version. On a long-haul flight on the morning after this past week’s election, I ground out a “meaning of it all” dispatch for our web site. But for oddball logistics reasons, that couldn’t get posted right away — and ever-changing news headlines made what I’d originally written seem oddly framed.
So this post, kicking off a new Thread, has two points. One is to summarize the post-election wrap-up I had laid out, in lost-manuscript form. The other is to give some illustrations of what I argue is the fundamentally promising post-election theme.
First, what happened this past week? My long-form argument was that many Democrats felt emotionally gut-punched on Election Night, mainly because of three very high-profile losses in long-shot but closely run races. These involved, of course: Beto O’Rourke in Texas, Stacey Abrams in Georgia, and Andrew Gillum in Florida.
Whatever may eventually turn out in the Georgia and Florida recounts, as of last Tuesday night they were all heartbreaking disappointments for the Democrats. And while those (apparent) losses were offset by some emotionally important surprises and successes, principally the defeats of Kris Kobach in the governor’s race in Kansas and of Scott Walker in Wisconsin, they were accompanied by a range of other defeats, from Joe Donnelly’s and Heidi Heitkamp’s in the Senate to Amy McGrath’s and M.J. Hegar’s and Richard Ojeda’s in the House.
But — the “pivot” argument in my day-after piece — I said that the long-term fundamentals of the election would be more favorable to Democrats than the emotion of that first night suggested, in several ways.
The most obvious was simply the shift in control of the House. That the Democrats would gain at least the requisite 23 votes was clear by very late on Tuesday night. And as close races have kept being called since then — notably in California and Arizona, with their long-established pattern of early returns skewing Republican and the Democratic share edging up as the count wore on—the scale of an extremely sizable victory has begun to sink in.
As I write this update, it looks as if the Democrats will pick up 35 or more seats and carry the popular vote for the House by 7 to 8 per cent, results that would have been reported as “a wave” if they’d been foreseen or recognized on election night. It is on track to be a bigger percentage-point margin than the Republicans scored in the Tea Party elections of 2010, when gerrymandering allowed them to flip sixty-plus seats. (Here’s a fascinating Atlantic graphic categorizing the traits of districts that flipped this time.)
Beyond the intangible effects of House results that will be larger than they initially seemed, there is the hugely important practical consequence of the House being again empowered as a check on presidential excesses. With Adam Schiff as (presumptive) chairman of the Intelligence Committee — and Adam Smith at Armed Services, and John Yarmuth at Budget, and Maxine Waters at Financial Services, and Nita Lowey at Appropriations — hearings, subpoenas, and investigations will mean something very different in the next two years of Donald Trump’s term than they have in the past two.
At the state-legislature level, it appears that in this one election Democrats will have won back well over one-third of the seats they lost during eight years under Barack Obama. The balance of the Obama years — emotional satisfaction at the top of the ticket, losses lower down — was at least partially reversed. And the anti-gerrymandering and voting-expansion initiatives passed in a large number of states, while presumably useful to the Democrats in the short term, are more important longer-term as repairs to the working mechanisms of democracy.
And so, I would have argued in my phantom piece, the 2018 elections were indeed likely to be the opposite of the Obama years. Emotionally, for Democrats November, 2018 felt much less satisfying than November, 2012 or (especially) November, 2008. But the practical advances were more sizable than initial coverage implied.
Now, for a little more on this last point: the ways in which this election might be seen as a hinge point on repairing the mechanics of democracy. This is of course a trend I’ve been talking about for a long time, and on which the historian Geoffrey Kabaservice wrote today in the Washington Post, citing arguments Deb Fallows and I have made (emphasis added):
While many red states will continue to be tough battlegrounds for Democrats, even in growing metropolitan areas, an increasing number of Republicans in those states may move toward Cornett-style [Mick Cornett, former Republican mayor of Oklahoma City], get-it-done moderation and away from tea party conservatism.
James and Deborah Fallows, authors of the recent book “Our Towns,” traveled extensively around smaller urban areas in heartland America in the course of their research. They discovered that, in contrast to the hyper-partisanship and gridlock at the federal level, local politics retains a penchant for collaboration, reasonable compromise and long-term vision.
If there’s any hope for our collective political future, it’s that such pragmatism will percolate up from our local politics to our national politics. And the 2018 midterm results suggest that green shoots of moderation are breaking out, even in the states that many East Coast liberals think are hopelessly addicted to Trump’s brand of divisive cultural warfare.
As will come as no surprise, I agree with Kabaservice’s emphasis on engagement and practical-mindedness “percolating up” from the still-functional level of American politics. And here are a few other indications of this trend underway:
“Let the People Vote,” by David Leonhardt in the New York Times. The subtitle tells it all: “America finally has a pro-democracy movement — and it did very well at the polls last week.”
The ongoing theme in this space will be where and why practical-minded functionality is percolating up from the local level, and what circumstances might hasten and favor that process. It’s been a good beginning this past week.
It’s much less scientific—and more prone to gratuitous procedures—than you may think.
In the early 2000s Terry Mitchell’s dentist retired. For a while, Mitchell, an electrician in his 50s, stopped seeking dental care altogether. But when one of his wisdom teeth began to ache, he started looking for someone new. An acquaintance recommended John Roger Lund, whose practice was a convenient 10-minute walk from Mitchell’s home, in San Jose, California. Lund’s practice was situated in a one-story building with clay roof tiles that housed several dental offices. The interior was a little dated, but not dingy. The waiting room was small and the decor minimal: some plants and photos, no fish. Lund was a good-looking middle-aged guy with arched eyebrows, round glasses, and graying hair that framed a youthful face. He was charming, chatty, and upbeat. At the time, Mitchell and Lund both owned Chevrolet Chevelles, and they bonded over their mutual love of classic cars.
Better to run than to have your liver squeezed out.
The great white shark—a fast, powerful, 16-foot-long torpedo that’s armed to the teeth with teeth—has little to fear except fear itself. But also: killer whales.
For almost 15 years, Salvador Jorgensen from the Monterey Bay Aquarium has been studying great white sharks off the coast of California. He and his colleagues would lure the predators to their boats using bits of old carpet that they had cut in the shape of a seal. When the sharks approached, the team would shoot them with electronic tags that periodically emit ultrasonic signals. Underwater receivers, moored throughout Californian waters, detected these signals as the sharks swam by, allowing the team to track their whereabouts over time.
A lot of software developers, according to an unprecedented new analysis.
Updated on April 19 at 1:28 p.m. ET.
There has never been a town like the one San Francisco is becoming, a place where a single industry composed almost entirely of rich people thoroughly dominates the local economy. Much of the money that’s been squished out of the rest of the world gets funneled by the internet pipes to this little sliver of land on the Pacific Ocean, jutting out into the glory of the bay. The city now sits atop a geyser of cash created from what the scholar Shoshana Zuboff calls “behavioral surplus”—the natural resource created from your behavior, which is to say your mind.
Gérard Araud says that Trump is right about trade. Kushner is “extremely smart” but has “no guts.” And John Bolton’s not so bad, actually.
Gérard Araud, the charmingly blunt French ambassador to the United States, is famous for two things: the lavish parties he hosts at his Kalorama mansion, and his willingness to say (and tweet) things that other ambassadors might not even think, much less state in public.
Araud ends his nearly five-year tenure in Washington today, and when I spoke with him last week, he was, even by his usual standards, direct to the point of discomfort. He told me his view of the U.S. (“The role of the United States as a policeman of the world, it’s over”) and Donald Trump (“brutal, a bit primitive, but in a sense he’s right” on free trade), and he shared his opinions of John Bolton (he’s a “real professional,” even though “he hates international organizations”) and Jared Kushner (“extremely smart, but he has no guts”).
Why don’t the two holidays always coincide? It is, to some degree, the moon’s fault.
Let’s get some things straight.
Passover is a springtime Jewish festival celebrating the early Israelites’ exodus from Egypt and freedom from slavery. Jews observe it by hosting a ritual dinner, called a seder, and then by abstaining from eating all leavened bread for about a week. (Some of us abstain from someother stuff, too.) Instead, we eat matzo, a thin, unleavened cracker.
Easter is a springtime Christian holiday celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ and freedom from sin and death. It is preceded by a series of holidays commemorating Jesus’s path to the cross. One of these holidays is Maundy Thursday, which, aside from being a great name for a holiday, is a remembrance of the Last Supper, which was a seder. In the United States, many Christians observe Easter by attending a ritual meal between breakfast and lunch, called a brunch.
The central question about the Trump-Russia matter remains unanswered.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report has settled—or all but settled—important questions about the Trump-Russia matter.
Did Russia intervene in the 2016 election with the conscious and articulated intent to help elect Donald Trump? Yes.
How important were these interventions to the outcome? Large, possibly decisive.
Did the Trump campaign know that Russia was doing the intervening? From the beginning, cybersecurity experts said Russian hackers had obtained leaked Democratic emails. The Mueller report decisively refutes Julian Assange’s alternative explanation—the lie that WikiLeaks had an “inside source.”
Did the Trump campaign know of these interventions in advance? Uncertain. Mueller reports that people in and around the Trump campaign frantically sought advance information about WikiLeaks, but the evidence about whether they succeeded has been redacted to protect an ongoing legal matter.
The former vice president has finally decided he’s in, and he’s announcing in less than a week. Now he just has to finish putting a campaign together.
Joe Biden is running. The former vice president will make his candidacy official with a video announcement next Wednesday, according to people familiar with the discussions who have been told about them by top aides.
Seriously, he’s actually made a decision. It’s taken two years of back-and-forth, it’ll be his third (or, depending on how you count, seventh) try for the White House, and many people thought he wouldn’t do it, but the biggest factor reshaping the 2020 Democratic-primary field is locking into place.
He wants this. He really wants this. He’s wanted this since he was first elected to the Senate, in 1972, and he’s decided that he isn’t too old, isn’t too out of sync with the current energy in the Democratic Party, and certainly wasn’t going to be chased out by the women who accused him of making them feel uncomfortable or demeaned because of how he’d touched them.
Attorney General William Barr released Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s long-awaited report on his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election on Thursday. Though some of the findings have been redacted, the report will give the public a clearer sense of what the special counsel found—and whether Barr’s short summary, made public in late March, was accurate.
The report covers the special counsel’s investigation into Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election, and details 10 episodes that Mueller’s team examined as part of its inquiry into whether President Donald Trump obstructed justice. Four types of information are redacted in the report, according to Barr: grand-jury material, and details that could jeopardize intelligence sources and methods, ongoing cases, and the privacy of “peripheral third parties.”
In more than a dozen academic fields—largely STEM related—not a single black student earned a doctoral degree in 2017.
Some trends in higher education move up and down—ebbing and flowing with the economy and demographic shifts. And then there are those that are stagnant, ever-present reminders of the work America’s universities still need to do.
One of those is the problem of faculty diversity: Less than 6 percent of full-time faculty members at institutions across the country are black. Many factors coalesce to bring about that dearth of black faculty, but one of the most significant is the perpetual scarcity of black doctoral-degree recipients.
From 2002 to 2017, of the roughly 50,000 people who earned Ph.D.s each year, the percentage who were black increased only modestly, from 5.1 percent to 5.4 percent, according to data from the National Science Foundation. In 2017, there were more than a dozen fields—largely subfields within science, technology, engineering, and math—in which not a single doctoral degree was awarded to a black person anywhere in the United States.
The special counsel’s findings validate the concerns of anyone who feared how Donald Trump would wield presidential power.
Beyond all the revelations about Russian entanglements and possible obstruction of justice, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report crystallizes two cardinal rules about governance in Donald Trump’s Washington. One is that Trump will shatter any boundaries of law, morality, or custom in his exercise of presidential power. The second is that Republicans—not only in Congress, but now also in the executive branch—will not restrain any of his excesses. The same holds true for both unwritten rules: They constitute a defining gamble for the GOP in future elections.
Starting with Attorney General William Barr’s staggeringly misleading press conference Thursday about the report, and extending through the blithe dismissal from congressional Republicans of its revelations, the release was yet another demonstration that there may be literally nothing Trump can do that would cause Republicans to break from him. Mueller’s report cataloged dozens of behaviors from Trump and his advisers—from sharing internal campaign polling data and strategy with a suspected agent of a foreign power to repeatedly lying to the public to systematically seeking to thwart investigations—that would have inspired volcanic eruptions of outrage from congressional Republicans and the conservative-media infrastructure if perpetrated by a Democratic president.